I noticed a recurring pattern whenever I try to embark on a new way of life, typically against the mainstream. I get really stressed before making the decision or change, followed by anxiety, a sense of abandonment or alienation – even though technically I’m the one doing the abandonment or alienation but I guess the feeling comes from the aloneness of leaving the herd – more low-grade anxiety, as though I am doing something really wrong, stupid and weird. Then one day without warning, I start to notice I no longer carry that weird swirly feeling in my chest, I stop hating myself and I start to feel at ease with the new path I am walking on.
I felt a lot of fear for leaving the tech industry for good. I was not leaving just a job, I was leaving my entire identity, my tribe: people who had made me few a semblance of normality, a sense of self-worth, and belonging. The past few years, all I kept doing was leaving. For someone like me who is chronically insecure, doing all this leaving was quite traumatic. I needed all of that to feel safe, and yet I left them behind.
But now, I feel a sense of peace, and a sense of firmness in my identity. I am no longer defined but what I do but who I am as a person. I feel less scared at losing things or experiencing changes in my circumstances, because I feel like I have acquired a sense of self that was not distributed to me by some external value system. I start to have an inkling of what is truly important to me, instead of holding on desperately to things that seemed to be important because, well, everyone else seems to think so.
It is difficult to live a life against the mainstream. First of, we seemed genetically programmed to want social acceptance (well I guess in cavemen times you would die if you don’t learn to cooperate with other people). Research seems to show that our brain reacts to social rejection the same way we react to physical pain. Also, the functioning of society depends on consensus, how do we know what is right and what is wrong if we’re on our own?
But what if, as history has demonstrated again and again, the majority consensus can be flawed?
I have derived great solace in reading books about monastic life. I used to holding conflicting opinions about monastics. On one hand, I feel admire their capacity to throw everything away. On the other, I wondered if they were escaping from life. Recently, I begun to develop a view that being a monastic is a radical rebellion to the way the current world works. It is like giving a giant middle finger to capitalism and materialism, making a deliberate choice to believe that a way of life is possible needing as little as possible, trying to constantly pare down instead of striving with endless greed. Now, I think monastics are not the ones escaping from life, but trying to go deeper into life by removing as much noise as possible.
I am beginning to understand almost everything in life is noise and distraction. The way society is set up right now, there is no choice for most people but to work. We work most of our waking hours away for the top 1%’s benefit, and work takes so much time away from what truly matters in life: love. People who have experienced brushes with death probably understand glimpses of that. What is the point of being the best anything in the world when you can’t spend time with people you love?
When I was busy with work I had no appreciation for most things. Because appreciation requires thoughtfulness, and thoughtfulness requires time. Seeing and knowing a person beyond their job title takes time. Wandering in nature and savouring the richness of what nature has to offer takes time. Remembering the impermanence of life and reminding ourselves of the fragile existence of our loved ones – these thoughts would not pop up when I was rushing from one deadline to another, or spending more than ten hours in front of the computer to prove that I was capable.
So what if I was capable?
So what if I was not?
I started contemplating this possibility when I started getting chronic migraines which inhibited my ability to work. What if in all definitions of the word, I become disabled?
I spent a lot of time in the past few years in despair, shame and fear. I think that is the consequence when we are conditioned to believe that our self-worth comes from social recognition defined by the work we do. But somehow, over the years I have slowly changed, and just like I described in the opening paragraph above, I stopped being anxious. It is almost like an addiction: it may be challenging to go without coffee for a while, but after some time we just get used to it. For me, it is the same for my dependence on social affirmation. Suddenly, it has become empty for me, it has lost its value.
I feel like I am okay being a very little person. A person who is little, has little value, and has little things. I like my littleness, the lightness that is derived from it. Since I no longer identify as a designer or anything really, I don’t feel the anxious need to protect that status. I don’t feel the need to make myself seem useful or capable anymore. I accept the very little that I can do.
In exchange for this littleness, I get time and love. Time to love, time to be loved, time to do things I love, time to discover experiences to love. When I projected myself as a very capable person I felt empty and I knew it was not real or sustainable. But projecting myself as a very little person with time and love, there is a sense of wholeness and anticipation. It takes very little to amuse me these days.
I don’t know if this is temporary, but in a way, everything is temporary. It is refreshing though, to have a little window of time in my life where I can feel this sense of space available, where I no longer feel that claustrophobic living in my own head and in my own life. I used to feel I lacked so much, so much. But now, I feel there is so much out there in the unknown to explore, once I stopped trying to pigeonhole myself into a self who was dependent on social acceptance.
It once seemed unthinkable to try to be as little as possible when this world is all about making ourselves as large as possible. But maybe between being a monastic and Elon Musk there is a long colourful spectrum where there is a sweet spot for me. It is just surreal to notice that what seemed so important to me, so unliveable without, has been reduced to something I now wonder why I needed it in the first place.